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The Blue Castle

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CHAPTER XXXI

Autumn came. Late September with cool nights. They had to forsake the verandah; but they kindled a fire in the big fireplace and sat before it with jest and laughter. They left the doors open, and Banjo and Good Luck came and went at pleasure. Sometimes they sat gravely on the bearskin rug between Barney and Valancy; sometimes they slunk off into the mystery of the chill night outside. The stars smouldered in the horizon mists through the old oriel. The haunting, persistent croon of the pine-trees filled the air. The little waves began to make soft, sobbing splashes on the rocks below them in the rising winds. They needed no light but the firelight that sometimes leaped up and revealed them—sometimes shrouded them in shadow. When the night wind rose higher Barney would shut the door and light a lamp and read to her—poetry and essays and gorgeous, dim chronicles of ancient wars. Barney never would read novels: he vowed they bored him. But sometimes she read them herself, curled up on the wolf skins, laughing aloud in peace. For Barney was not one of those aggravating people who can never hear you smiling audibly over something you've read without inquiring placidly, "What is the joke?"

October—with a gorgeous pageant of color around Mistawis, into which Valancy plunged her soul. Never had she imagined anything so splendid. A great, tinted peace. Blue, wind-winnowed skies. Sunlight sleeping in the glades of that fairyland. Long dreamy purple days paddling idly in their canoe along shores and up the rivers of crimson and gold. A sleepy, red hunter's moon. Enchanted tempests that stripped the leaves from the trees and heaped them along the shores. Flying shadows of clouds. What had all the smug, opulent lands out front to compare with this?

November—with uncanny witchery in its changed trees. With murky red sunsets flaming in smoky crimson behind the westering hills. With dear days when the austere woods were beautiful and gracious in a dignified serenity of folded hands and closed eyes—days full of a fine, pale sunshine that sifted through the late, leafless gold of the juniper-trees and glimmered among the grey beeches, lighting up evergreen banks of moss and washing the colonnades of the pines. Days with a high-sprung sky of flawless turquoise. Days when an exquisite melancholy seemed to hang over the landscape and dream about the lake. But days, too, of the wild blackness of great autumn storms, followed by dank, wet, streaming nights when there was witch-laughter in the pines and fitful moans among the mainland trees. What cared they? Old Tom had built his roof well, and his chimney drew.

"Warm fire—books—comfort—safety from storm—our cats on the rug. Moonlight," said Barney, "would you be any happier now if you had a million dollars?"

"No—nor half so happy. I'd be bored by conventions and obligations then."

December. Early snows and Orion. The pale fires of the Milky Way. It was really winter now—wonderful, cold, starry winter. How Valancy had always hated winter! Dull, brief, uneventful days. Long, cold, companionless nights. Cousin Stickles with her back that had to be rubbed continually. Cousin Stickles making weird noises gargling her throat in the mornings. Cousin Stickles whining over the price of coal. Her mother, probing, questioning, ignoring. Endless colds and bronchitis—or the dread of it. Redfern's Liniment and Purple Pills.

But now she loved winter. Winter was beautiful "up back"—almost intolerably beautiful. Days of clear brilliance. Evenings that were like cups of glamour—the purest vintage of winter's wine. Nights with their fire of stars. Cold, exquisite winter sunrises. Lovely ferns of ice all over the windows of the Blue Castle. Moonlight on birches in a silver thaw. Ragged shadows on windy evenings—torn, twisted, fantastic shadows. Great silences, austere and searching. Jewelled, barbaric hills. The sun suddenly breaking through grey clouds over long, white Mistawis. Icy-grey twilights, broken by snow-squalls, when their cosy living-room, with its goblins of firelight and inscrutable cats seemed cosier than ever. Every hour brought a new revelation and wonder.

Barney ran Lady Jane into Roaring Abel's barn and taught Valancy how to snowshoe—Valancy, who ought to be laid up with bronchitis. But Valancy had not even a cold. Later on in the winter Barney had a terrible one and Valancy nursed him through it with a dread of pneumonia in her heart. But Valancy's colds seemed to have gone where old moons go. Which was luck—for she hadn't even Redfern's Liniment. She had thoughtfully bought a bottle at the Port and Barney had hurled it into frozen Mistawis with a scowl.

"Bring no more of that devilish stuff here," he had ordered briefly. It was the first and last time he had spoken harshly to her.

They went for long tramps through the exquisite reticence of winter woods and the silver jungles of frosted trees, and found loveliness everywhere.

At times they seemed to be walking through a spellbound world of crystal and pearl, so white and radiant were clearings and lakes and sky. The air was so crisp and clear that it was half intoxicating.

Once they stood in a hesitation of ecstasy at the entrance of a narrow path between ranks of birches. Every twig and spray was outlined in snow. The undergrowth along its sides was a little fairy forest cut out of marble. The shadows cast by the pale sunshine were fine and spiritual.

"Come away," said Barney, turning. "We must not commit the desecration of tramping through there."

One evening they came upon a snowdrift far back in an old clearing which was in the exact likeness of a beautiful woman's profile. Seen too close by, the resemblance was lost, as in the fairy-tale of the Castle of St. John. Seen from behind, it was a shapeless oddity. But at just the right distance and angle the outline was so perfect that when they came suddenly upon it, gleaming out against the dark background of spruce in the glow of that winter sunset they both exclaimed in amazement. There was a low, noble brow, a straight, classic nose, lips and chin and cheek-curve modelled as if some goddess of old time had sat to the sculptor, and a breast of such cold, swelling purity as the very spirit of the winter woods might display.

"'All the beauty that old Greece and Rome, sung painted, taught,'" quoted Barney.

"And to think no human eyes save ours have seen or will see it," breathed Valancy, who felt at times as if she were living in a book by John Foster. As she looked around her she recalled some passages she had marked in the new Foster book Barney had brought her from the Port—with an adjuration not to expect him to read or listen to it.

"'All the tintings of winter woods are extremely delicate and elusive,'" recalled Valancy. "'When the brief afternoon wanes and the sun just touches the tops of the hills, there seems to be all over the woods an abundance, not of colour, but of the spirit of colour. There is really nothing but pure white after all, but one has the impression of fairy-like blendings of rose and violet, opal and heliotrope on the slopes—in the dingles and along the curves of the forest-land. You feel sure the tint is there, but when you look at it directly it is gone. From the corner of your eye you are aware that it is lurking over yonder in a spot where there was nothing but pale purity a moment ago. Only just when the sun is setting is there a fleeting moment of real colour. Then the redness streams out over the snow and incarnadines the hills and rivers and smites the crest of the pines with flame. Just a few minutes of transfiguration and revelation—and it is gone.'"

"I wonder if John Foster ever spent a winter in Mistawis," said Valancy.

"Not likely," scoffed Barney. "People who write tosh like that generally write it in a warm house on some smug city street."

"You are too hard on John Foster," said Valancy severely. "No one could have written that little paragraph I read you last night without having seen it first—you know he couldn't."

"I didn't listen to it," said Barney morosely. "You know I told you I wouldn't."

"Then you've got to listen to it now," persisted Valancy. She made him stand still on his snowshoes while she repeated it.

"'She is a rare artist, this old Mother Nature, who works "for the joy of working" and not in any spirit of vain show. Today the fir woods are a symphony of greens and greys, so subtle that you cannot tell where one shade begins to be the other. Grey trunk, green bough, grey-green moss above the white, grey-shadowed floor. Yet the old gypsy doesn't like unrelieved monotones. She must have a dash of colour. See it. A broken dead fir bough, of a beautiful red-brown, swinging among the beards of moss.'"

"Good Lord, do you learn all that fellow's books by heart?" was Barney's disgusted reaction as he strode off.

"John Foster's books were all that saved my soul alive the past five years," averred Valancy. "Oh, Barney, look at that exquisite filigree of snow in the furrows of that old elm-tree trunk."

When they came out to the lake they changed from snowshoes to skates and skated home. For a wonder Valancy had learned, when she was a little schoolgirl, to skate on the pond behind the Deerwood school. She never had any skates of her own, but some of the other girls had lent her theirs and she seemed to have a natural knack of it. Uncle Benjamin had once promised her a pair of skates for Christmas, but when Christmas came he had given her rubbers instead. She had never skated since she grew up, but the old trick came back quickly, and glorious were the hours she and Barney spent skimming over the white lakes and past the dark islands where the summer cottages were closed and silent. Tonight they flew down Mistawis before the wind, in an exhilaration that crimsoned Valancy's cheeks under her white tam. And at the end was her dear little house, on the island of pines, with a coating of snow on its roof, sparkling in the moonlight. Its windows glinted impishly at her in the stay gleams.

"Looks exactly like a picture-book, doesn't it?" said Barney.

They had a lovely Christmas. No rush. No scramble. No niggling attempts to make ends meet. No wild effort to remember whether she hadn't given the same kind of present to the same person two Christmases before—no mob of last-minute shoppers—no dreary family "reunions" where she sat mute and unimportant—no attacks of "nerves." They decorated the Blue Castle with pine boughs, and Valancy made delightful little tinsel stars and hung them up amid the greenery. She cooked a dinner to which Barney did full justice, while Good Luck and Banjo picked the bones.

"A land that can produce a goose like that is an admirable land," vowed Barney. "Canada forever!" And they drank to the Union Jack a bottle of dandelion wine that Cousin Georgiana had given Valancy along with the bedspread.

"One never knows," Cousin Georgiana had said solemnly, "when one may need a little stimulant."

Barney had asked Valancy what she wanted for a Christmas present.

"Something frivolous and unnecessary," said Valancy, who had got a pair of goloshes last Christmas and two long-sleeved, woolen undervests the year before. And so on back.

To her delight, Barney gave her a necklace of pearl beads. Valancy had wanted a string of milky pearl beads—like congealed moonshine—all her life. And these were so pretty. All that worried her was that they were really too good. They must have cost a great deal—fifteen dollars, at least. Could Barney afford that? She didn't know a thing about his finances. She had refused to let him buy any of her clothes—she had enough for that, she told him, as long as she would need clothes. In a round, black jar on the chimney-piece Barney put money for their household expenses—always enough. The jar was never empty, though Valancy never caught him replenishing it. He couldn't have much, of course, and that necklace—but Valancy tossed care aside. She would wear it and enjoy it. It was the first pretty thing she had ever had.





CHAPTER XXXII

New Year. The old, shabby, inglorious outlived calendar came down. The new one went up. January was a month of storms. It snowed for three weeks on end. The thermometer went miles below zero and stayed there. But, as Barney and Valancy pointed out to each other, there were no mosquitoes. And the roar and crackle of their big fire drowned the howls of the north wind. Good Luck and Banjo waxed fat and developed resplendent coats of thick, silky fur. Nip and Tuck had gone.

"But they'll come back in spring," promised Barney.

There was no monotony. Sometimes they had dramatic little private spats that never even thought of becoming quarrels. Sometimes Roaring Abel dropped in—for an evening or a whole day—with his old tartan cap and his long red beard coated with snow. He generally brought his fiddle and played for them, to the delight of all except Banjo, who would go temporarily insane and retreat under Valancy's bed. Sometimes Abel and Barney talked while Valancy made candy for them; sometimes they sat and smoked in silence à la Tennyson and Carlyle, until the Blue Castle reeked and Valancy fled to the open. Sometimes they played checkers fiercely and silently the whole night through. Sometimes they all ate the russet apples Abel had brought, while the jolly old clock ticked the delightful minutes away.

"A plate of apples, an open fire, and 'a jolly goode booke whereon to looke' are a fair substitute for heaven," vowed Barney. "Any one can have the streets of gold. Let's have another whack at Carman."

It was easier now for the Stirlings to believe Valancy of the dead. Not even dim rumours of her having been over at the Port came to trouble them, though she and Barney used to skate there occasionally to see a movie and eat hot dogs shamelessly at the corner stand afterwards. Presumably none of the Stirlings ever thought about her—except Cousin Georgiana, who used to lie awake worrying about poor Doss. Did she have enough to eat? Was that dreadful creature good to her? Was she warm enough at nights?

Valancy was quite warm at nights. She used to wake up and revel silently in the cosiness of those winter nights on that little island in the frozen lake. The nights of other winters had been so cold and long. Valancy hated to wake up in them and think about the bleakness and emptiness of the day that had passed and the bleakness and emptiness of the day that would come. Now, she almost counted that night lost on which she didn't wake up and lie awake for half an hour just being happy, while Barney's regular breathing went on beside her, and through the open door the smouldering brands in the fireplace winked at her in the gloom. It was very nice to feel a little Lucky cat jump up on your bed in the darkness and snuggle down at your feet, purring; but Banjo would be sitting dourly by himself out in front of the fire like a brooding demon. At such moments Banjo was anything but canny, but Valancy loved his uncanniness.

The side of the bed had to be right against the window. There was no other place for it in the tiny room. Valancy, lying there, could look out of the window, through the big pine boughs that actually touched it, away up Mistawis, white and lustrous as a pavement of pearl, or dark and terrible in the storm. Sometimes the pine boughs tapped against the panes with friendly signals. Sometimes she heard the little hissing whisper of snow against them right at her side. Some nights the whole outer world seemed given over to the empery of silence; then came nights when there would be a majestic sweep of wind in the pines; nights of dear starlight when it whistled freakishly and joyously around the Blue Castle; brooding nights before storm when it crept along the floor of the lake with a low, wailing cry of boding and mystery. Valancy wasted many perfectly good sleeping hours in these delightful communings. But she could sleep as long in the morning as she wanted to. Nobody cared. Barney cooked his own breakfast of bacon and eggs and then shut himself up in Bluebeard's Chamber till supper time. Then they had an evening of reading and talk. They talked about everything in this world and a good many things in other worlds. They laughed over their own jokes until the Blue Castles re-echoed.

"You do laugh beautifully," Barney told her once. "It makes me want to laugh just to hear you laugh. There's a trick about your laugh—as if there were so much more fun back of it that you wouldn't let out. Did you laugh like that before you came to Mistawis, Moonlight?"

"I never laughed at all—really. I used to giggle foolishly when I felt I was expected to. But now—the laugh just comes."

It struck Valancy more than once that Barney himself laughed a great deal oftener than he used to and that his laugh had changed. It had become wholesome. She rarely heard the little cynical note in it now. Could a man laugh like that who had crimes on his conscience? Yet Barney must have done something. Valancy had indifferently made up her mind as to what he had done. She concluded he was a defaulting bank cashier. She had found in one of Barney's books an old clipping cut from a Montreal paper in which a vanished, defaulting cashier was described. The description applied to Barney—as well as to half a dozen other men Valancy knew—and from some casual remarks he had dropped from time to time she concluded he knew Montreal rather well. Valancy had it all figured out in the back of her mind. Barney had been in a bank. He was tempted to take some money to speculate—meaning, of course, to put it back. He had got in deeper and deeper, until he found there was nothing for it but flight. It had happened so to scores of men. He had, Valancy was absolutely certain, never meant to do wrong. Of course, the name of the man in the clipping was Bernard Craig. But Valancy had always thought Snaith was an alias. Not that it mattered.

Valancy had only one unhappy night that winter. It came in late March when most of the snow had gone and Nip and Tuck had returned. Barney had gone off in the afternoon for a long, woodland tramp, saying he would be back by dark if all went well. Soon after he had gone it had begun to snow. The wind rose and presently Mistawis was in the grip of one of the worst storms of the winter. It tore up the lake and struck at the little house. The dark angry woods on the mainland scowled at Valancy, menace in the toss of their boughs, threats in their windy gloom, terror in the roar of their hearts. The trees on the island crouched in fear. Valancy spent the night huddled on the rug before the fire, her face buried in her hands, when she was not vainly peering from the oriel in a futile effort to see through the furious smoke of wind and snow that had once been blue-dimpled Mistawis. Where was Barney? Lost on the merciless lakes? Sinking exhausted in the drifts of the pathless woods? Valancy died a hundred deaths that night and paid in full for all the happiness of her Blue Castle. When morning came the storm broke and cleared; the sun shone gloriously over Mistawis; and at noon Barney came home. Valancy saw him from the oriel as he came around a wooded point, slender and black against the glistening white world. She did not run to meet him. Something happened to her knees and she dropped down on Banjo's chair. Luckily Banjo got out from under in time, his whiskers bristling with indignation. Barney found her there, her head buried in her hands.

"Barney, I thought you were dead," she whispered.

Barney hooted.

"After two years of the Klondike did you think a baby storm like this could get me? I spent the night in that old lumber shanty over by Muskoka. A bit cold but snug enough. Little goose! Your eyes look like burnt holes in a blanket. Did you sit up here all night worrying over an old woodsman like me?"

"Yes," said Valancy. "I—couldn't help it. The storm seemed so wild. Anybody might have been lost in it. When—I saw you—come round the point—there—something happened to me. I don't know what. It was as if I had died and come back to life. I can't describe it any other way."





CHAPTER XXXIII

Spring. Mistawis black and sullen for a week or two, then flaming in sapphire and turquoise, lilac and rose again, laughing through the oriel, caressing its amethyst islands, rippling under winds soft as silk. Frogs, little green wizards of swamp and pool, singing everywhere in the long twilights and long into the nights; islands fairy-like in a green haze; the evanescent beauty of wild young trees in early leaf; frost-like loveliness of the new foliage of juniper-trees; the woods putting on a fashion of spring flowers, dainty, spiritual things akin to the soul of the wilderness; red mist on the maples; willows decked out with glossy silver pussies; all the forgotten violets of Mistawis blooming again; lure of April moons.

"Think how many thousands of springs have been here on Mistawis—and all of them beautiful," said Valancy. "Oh, Barney, look at that wild plum! I will—I must quote from John Foster. There's a passage in one of his books—I've re-read it a hundred times. He must have written it before a tree just like that:

"'Behold the young wild plum-tree which has adorned herself after immemorial fashion in a wedding-veil of fine lace. The fingers of wood pixies must have woven it, for nothing like it ever came from an earthly loom. I vow the tree is conscious of its loveliness. It is bridling before our very eyes—as if its beauty were not the most ephemeral thing in the woods, as it is the rarest and most exceeding, for today it is and tomorrow it is not. Every south wind purring through the boughs will winnow away a shower of slender petals. But what matter? Today it is queen of the wild places and it is always today in the woods.'"

"I'm sure you feel much better since you've got that out of your system," said Barney heartlessly.

"Here's a patch of dandelions," said Valancy, unsubdued. "Dandelions shouldn't grow in the woods, though. They haven't any sense of the fitness of things at all. They are too cheerful and self-satisfied. They haven't any of the mystery and reserve of the real wood-flowers."

"In short, they've no secrets," said Barney. "But wait a bit. The woods will have their own way even with those obvious dandelions. In a little while all that obtrusive yellowness and complacency will be gone and we'll find here misty, phantom-like globes hovering over those long grasses in full harmony with the traditions of the forest."

"That sounds John Fosterish," teased Valancy.

"What have I done that deserved a slam like that?" complained Barney.

One of the earliest signs of spring was the renaissance of Lady Jane. Barney put her on roads that no other car would look at, and they went through Deerwood in mud to the axles. They passed several Stirlings, who groaned and reflected that now spring was come they would encounter that shameless pair everywhere. Valancy, prowling about Deerwood shops, met Uncle Benjamin on the street; but he did not realise until he had gone two blocks further on that the girl in the scarlet-collared blanket coat, with cheeks reddened in the sharp April air and the fringe of black hair over laughing, slanted eyes, was Valancy. When he did realise it, Uncle Benjamin was indignant. What business had Valancy to look like—like—like a young girl? The way of the transgressor was hard. Had to be. Scriptural and proper. Yet Valancy's path couldn't be hard. She wouldn't look like that if it were. There was something wrong. It was almost enough to make a man turn modernist.

Barney and Valancy clanged on to the Port, so that it was dark when they went through Deerwood again. At her old home Valancy, seized with a sudden impulse, got out, opened the little gate and tiptoed around to the sitting-room window. There sat her mother and Cousin Stickles drearily, grimly knitting. Baffling and inhuman as ever. If they had looked the least bit lonesome Valancy would have gone in. But they did not. Valancy would not disturb them for worlds.





CHAPTER XXXIV

Valancy had two wonderful moments that spring.

One day, coming home through the woods, with her arms full of trailing arbutus and creeping spruce, she met a man who she knew must be Allan Tierney. Allan Tierney, the celebrated painter of beautiful women. He lived in New York in winter, but he owned an island cottage at the northern end of Mistawis to which he always came the minute the ice was out of the lake. He was reputed to be a lonely, eccentric man. He never flattered his sitters. There was no need to, for he would not paint any one who required flattery. To be painted by Allan Tierney was all the cachet of beauty a woman could desire. Valancy had heard so much about him that she couldn't help turning her head back over her shoulder for another shy, curious look at him. A shaft of pale spring sunlight fell through a great pine athwart her bare black head and her slanted eyes. She wore a pale green sweater and had bound a fillet of linnæa vine about her hair. The feathery fountain of trailing spruce overflowed her arms and fell around her. Allan Tierney's eyes lighted up.

"I've had a caller," said Barney the next afternoon, when Valancy had returned from another flower quest.

"Who?" Valancy was surprised but indifferent. She began filling a basket with arbutus.

"Allan Tierney. He wants to paint you, Moonlight."

"Me!" Valancy dropped her basket and her arbutus. "You're laughing at me, Barney."

"I'm not. That's what Tierney came for. To ask my permission to paint my wife—as the Spirit of Muskoka, or something like that."

"But—but—" stammered Valancy, "Allan Tierney never paints any but—any but——"

"Beautiful women," finished Barney. "Conceded. Q. E. D., Mistress Barney Snaith is a beautiful woman."

"Nonsense," said Valancy, stooping to retrieve her arbutus. "You know that's nonsense, Barney. I know I'm a heap better-looking than I was a year ago, but I'm not beautiful."

"Allan Tierney never makes a mistake," said Barney. "You forget, Moonlight, that there are different kinds of beauty. Your imagination is obsessed by the very obvious type of your cousin Olive. Oh, I've seen her—she's a stunner—but you'd never catch Allan Tierney wanting to paint her. In the horrible but expressive slang phrase, she keeps all her goods in the shop-window. But in your subconscious mind you have a conviction that nobody can be beautiful who doesn't look like Olive. Also, you remember your face as it was in the days when your soul was not allowed to shine through it. Tierney said something about the curve of your cheek as you looked back over your shoulder. You know I've often told you it was distracting. And he's quite batty about your eyes. If I wasn't absolutely sure it was solely professional—he's really a crabbed old bachelor, you know—I'd be jealous."

"Well, I don't want to be painted," said Valancy. "I hope you told him that."

"I couldn't tell him that. I didn't know what you wanted. But I told him I didn't want my wife painted—hung up in a salon for the mob to stare at. Belonging to another man. For of course I couldn't buy the picture. So even if you had wanted to be painted, Moonlight, your tyrannous husband would not have permitted it. Tierney was a bit squiffy. He isn't used to being turned down like that. His requests are almost like royalty's."

"But we are outlaws," laughed Valancy. "We bow to no decrees—we acknowledge no sovereignty."

In her heart she thought unashamedly:

"I wish Olive could know that Allan Tierney wanted to paint me. Me! Little-old-maid-Valancy-Stirling-that-was."

Her second wonder-moment came one evening in May. She realised that Barney actually liked her. She had always hoped he did, but sometimes she had a little, disagreeable, haunting dread that he was just kind and nice and chummy out of pity; knowing that she hadn't long to live and determined she should have a good time as long as she did live; but away back in his mind rather looking forward to freedom again, with no intrusive woman creature in his island fastness and no chattering thing beside him in his woodland prowls. She knew he could never love her. She did not even want him to. If he loved her he would be unhappy when she died—Valancy never flinched from the plain word. No "passing away" for her. And she did not want him to be the least unhappy. But neither did she want him to be glad—or relieved. She wanted him to like her and miss her as a good chum. But she had never been sure until this night that he did.

They had walked over the hills in the sunset. They had the delight of discovering a virgin spring in a ferny hollow and had drunk together from it out of a birch-bark cup; they had come to an old tumble-down rail fence and sat on it for a long time. They didn't talk much, but Valancy had a curious sense of oneness. She knew that she couldn't have felt that if he hadn't liked her.

"You nice little thing," said Barney suddenly. "Oh, you nice little thing! Sometimes I feel you're too nice to be real—that I'm just dreaming you."

"Why can't I die now—this very minute—when I am so happy!" thought Valancy.

Well, it couldn't be so very long now. Somehow, Valancy had always felt she would live out the year Dr. Trent had allotted. She had not been careful—she had never tried to be. But, somehow, she had always counted on living out her year. She had not let herself think about it at all. But now, sitting here beside Barney, with her hand in his, a sudden realisation came to her. She had not had a heart attack for a long while—two months at least. The last one she had had was two or three nights before Barney was out in the storm. Since then she had not remembered she had a heart. Well, no doubt, it betokened the nearness of the end. Nature had given up the struggle. There would be no more pain.

"I'm afraid heaven will be very dull after this past year," thought Valancy. "But perhaps one will not remember. Would that be—nice? No, no. I don't want to forget Barney. I'd rather be miserable in heaven remembering him than happy forgetting him. And I'll always remember through all eternity—that he really, really liked me."





CHAPTER XXXV

Thirty seconds can be very long sometimes. Long enough to work a miracle or a revolution. In thirty seconds life changed wholly for Barney and Valancy Snaith.

They had gone around the lake one June evening in their disappearing propeller, fished for an hour in a little creek, left their boat there, and walked up through the woods to Port Lawrence two miles away. Valancy prowled a bit in the shops and got herself a new pair of sensible shoes. Her old pair had suddenly and completely given out, and this evening she had been compelled to put on the little fancy pair of patent-leather with rather high, slender heels, which she had bought in a fit of folly one day in the winter because of their beauty and because she wanted to make one foolish, extravagant purchase in her life. She sometimes put them on of an evening in the Blue Castle, but this was the first time she had worn them outside. She had not found it any too easy walking up through the woods in them, and Barney guyed her unmercifully about them. But in spite of the inconvenience, Valancy secretly rather liked the look of her trim ankles and high instep above those pretty, foolish shoes and did not change them in the shop as she might have done.

The sun was hanging low above the pines when they left Port Lawrence. To the north of it the woods closed around the town quite suddenly. Valancy always had a sense of stepping from one world to another—from reality to fairyland—when she went out of Port Lawrence and in a twinkling found it shut off behind her by the armies of the pines.

A mile and a half from Port Lawrence there was a small railroad station with a little station-house which at this hour of the day was deserted, since no local train was due. Not a soul was in sight when Barney and Valancy emerged from the woods. Off to the left a sudden curve in the track hid it from view, but over the tree-tops beyond, the long plume of smoke betokened the approach of a through train. The rails were vibrating to its thunder as Barney stepped across the switch. Valancy was a few steps behind him, loitering to gather June-bells along the little, winding path. But there was plenty of time to get across before the train came. She stepped unconcernedly over the first rail.

She could never tell how it happened. The ensuing thirty seconds always seemed in her recollection like a chaotic nightmare in which she endured the agony of a thousand lifetimes.

The heel of her pretty, foolish shoe caught in a crevice of the switch. She could not pull it loose.

"Barney—Barney!" she called in alarm.

Barney turned—saw her predicament—saw her ashen face—dashed back. He tried to pull her clear—he tried to wrench her foot from the prisoning hold. In vain. In a moment the train would sweep around the curve—would be on them.

"Go—go—quick—you'll be killed, Barney!" shrieked Valancy, trying to push him away.

Barney dropped on his knees, ghost-white, frantically tearing at her shoe-lace. The knot defied his trembling fingers. He snatched a knife from his pocket and slashed at it. Valancy still strove blindly to push him away. Her mind was full of the hideous thought that Barney was going to be killed. She had no thought for her own danger.

"Barney—go—go—for God's sake—go!"

"Never!" muttered Barney between his set teeth. He gave one mad wrench at the lace. As the train thundered around the curve he sprang up and caught Valancy—dragging her clear, leaving the shoe behind her. The wind from the train as it swept by turned to icy cold the streaming perspiration on his face.

"Thank God!" he breathed.

For a moment they stood stupidly staring at each other, two white, shaken, wild-eyed creatures. Then they stumbled over to the little seat at the end of the station-house and dropped on it. Barney buried his face in his hands and said not a word. Valancy sat, staring straight ahead of her with unseeing eyes at the great pine woods, the stumps of the clearing, the long, gleaming rails. There was only one thought in her dazed mind—a thought that seemed to burn it as a shaving of fire might burn her body.

Dr. Trent had told her over a year ago that she had a serious form of heart-disease—that any excitement might be fatal.

If that were so, why was she not dead now? This very minute? She had just experienced as much and as terrible excitement as most people experience in a lifetime, crowded into that endless thirty seconds. Yet she had not died of it. She was not an iota the worse for it. A little wobbly at the knees, as any one would have been; a quicker heart-beat, as any one would have; nothing more.

Why!

Was it possible Dr. Trent had made a mistake?

Valancy shivered as if a cold wind had suddenly chilled her to the soul. She looked at Barney, hunched up beside her. His silence was very eloquent. Had the same thought occurred to him? Did he suddenly find himself confronted by the appalling suspicion that he was married, not for a few months or a year, but for good and all to a woman he did not love and who had foisted herself upon him by some trick or lie? Valancy turned sick before the horror of it. It could not be. It would be too cruel—too devilish. Dr. Trent couldn't have made a mistake. Impossible. He was one of the best heart specialists in Ontario. She was foolish—unnerved by the recent horror. She remembered some of the hideous spasms of pain she had had. There must be something serious the matter with her heart to account for them.

But she had not had any for nearly three months.

Why?

Presently Barney bestirred himself. He stood up, without looking at Valancy, and said casually:

"I suppose we'd better be hiking back. Sun's getting low. Are you good for the rest of the road?"

"I think so," said Valancy miserably.

Barney went across the clearing and picked up the parcel he had dropped—the parcel containing her new shoes. He brought it to her and let her take out the shoes and put them on without any assistance, while he stood with his back to her and looked out over the pines.

They walked in silence down the shadowy trail to the lake. In silence Barney steered his boat into the sunset miracle that was Mistawis. In silence they went around feathery headlands and across coral bays and silver rivers where canoes were slipping up and down in the afterglow. In silence they went past cottages echoing with music and laughter. In silence drew up at the landing-place below the Blue Castle.

Valancy went up the rock steps and into the house. She dropped miserably on the first chair she came to and sat there staring through the oriel, oblivious of Good Luck's frantic purrs of joy and Banjo's savage glares of protest at her occupancy of his chair.

Barney came in a few minutes later. He did not come near her, but he stood behind her and asked gently if she felt any the worse for her experience. Valancy would have given her year of happiness to have been able honestly to answer "Yes."

"No," she said flatly.

Barney went into Bluebeard's Chamber and shut the door. She heard him pacing up and down—up and down. He had never paced like that before.

And an hour ago—only an hour ago—she had been so happy!





CHAPTER XXXVI

Finally Valancy went to bed. Before she went she re-read Dr. Trent's letter. It comforted her a little. So positive. So assured. The writing so black and steady. Not the writing of a man who didn't know what he was writing about. But she could not sleep. She pretended to be asleep when Barney came in. Barney pretended to go to sleep. But Valancy knew perfectly well he wasn't sleeping any more than she was. She knew he was lying there, staring through the darkness. Thinking of what? Trying to face—what?

Valancy, who had spent so many happy wakeful hours of night lying by that window, now paid the price of them all in this one night of misery. A horrible, portentous fact was slowly looming out before her from the nebula of surmise and fear. She could not shut her eyes to it—push it away—ignore it.

There could be nothing seriously wrong with her heart, no matter what Dr. Trent had said. If there had been, those thirty seconds would have killed her. It was no use to recall Dr. Trent's letter and reputation. The greatest specialists made mistakes sometimes. Dr. Trent had made one.

Towards morning Valancy fell into a fitful dose with ridiculous dreams. One of them was of Barney taunting her with having tricked him. In her dream she lost her temper and struck him violently on the head with her rolling-pin. He proved to be made of glass and shivered into splinters all over the floor. She woke with a cry of horror—a gasp of relief—a short laugh over the absurdity of her dream—a miserable sickening recollection of what had happened.

Barney was gone. Valancy knew, as people sometimes know things—inescapably, without being told—that he was not in the house or in Bluebeard's Chamber either. There was a curious silence in the living-room. A silence with something uncanny about it. The old clock had stopped. Barney must have forgotten to wind it up, something he had never done before. The room without it was dead, though the sunshine streamed in through the oriel and dimples of light from the dancing waves beyond quivered over the walls.

The canoe was gone but Lady Jane was under the mainland trees. So Barney had betaken himself to the wilds. He would not return till night—perhaps not even then. He must be angry with her. That furious silence of his must mean anger—cold, deep, justifiable resentment. Well, Valancy knew what she must do first. She was not suffering very keenly now. Yet the curious numbness that pervaded her being was in a way worse than pain. It was as if something in her had died. She forced herself to cook and eat a little breakfast. Mechanically she put the Blue Castle in perfect order. Then she put on her hat and coat, locked the door and hid the key in the hollow of the old pine and crossed to the mainland in the motor boat. She was going into Deerwood to see Dr. Trent. She must know.





CHAPTER XXXVII

Dr. Trent looked at her blankly and fumbled among his recollections.

"Er—Miss—Miss—"

"Mrs. Snaith," said Valancy quietly. "I was Miss Valancy Stirling when I came to you last May—over a year ago. I wanted to consult you about my heart."

Dr. Trent's face cleared.

"Oh, of course. I remember now. I'm really not to blame for not knowing you. You've changed—splendidly. And married. Well, well, it has agreed with you. You don't look much like an invalid now, hey? I remember that day. I was badly upset. Hearing about poor Ned bowled me over. But Ned's as good as new and you, too, evidently. I told you so, you know—told you there was nothing to worry over."

Valancy looked at him.

"You told me, in your letter," she said slowly, with a curious feeling that some one else was talking through her lips, "that I had angina pectoris—in the last stages—complicated with an aneurism. That I might die any minute—that I couldn't live longer than a year."

Dr. Trent stared at her.

"Impossible!" he said blankly. "I couldn't have told you that!"

Valancy took his letter from her bag and handed it to him.

"Miss Valancy Stirling," he read. "Yes—yes. Of course I wrote you—on the train—that night. But I told you there was nothing serious——"

"Read your letter," insisted Valancy.

Dr. Trent took it out—unfolded it—glanced over it. A dismayed look came into his face. He jumped to his feet and strode agitatedly about the room.

"Good heavens! This is the letter I meant for old Miss Jane Sterling. From Port Lawrence. She was here that day, too. I sent you the wrong letter. What unpardonable carelessness! But I was beside myself that night. My God, and you believed that—you believed—but you didn't—you went to another doctor——"

Valancy stood up, turned round, looked foolishly about her and sat down again.

"I believed it," she said faintly. "I didn't go to any other doctor. I—I—it would take too long to explain. But I believed I was going to die soon."

Dr. Trent halted before her.

"I can never forgive myself. What a year you must have had! But you don't look—I can't understand!"

"Never mind," said Valancy dully. "And so there's nothing the matter with my heart?"

"Well, nothing serious. You had what is called pseudo-angina. It's never fatal—passes away completely with proper treatment. Or sometimes with a shock of joy. Have you been troubled much with it?"

"Not at all since March," answered Valancy. She remembered the marvellous feeling of re-creation she had had when she saw Barney coming home safe after the storm. Had that "shock of joy" cured her?

"Then likely you're all right. I told you what to do in the letter you should have got. And of course I supposed you'd go to another doctor. Child, why didn't you?"

"I didn't want anybody to know."

"Idiot," said Dr. Trent bluntly. "I can't understand such folly. And poor old Miss Sterling. She must have got your letter—telling her there was nothing serious the matter. Well, well, it couldn't have made any difference. Her case was hopeless. Nothing that she could have done or left undone could have made any difference. I was surprised she lived as long as she did—two months. She was here that day—not long before you. I hated to tell her the truth. You think I'm a blunt old curmudgeon—and my letters are blunt enough. I can't soften things. But I'm a snivelling coward when it comes to telling a woman face to face that she's got to die soon. I told her I'd look up some features of the case I wasn't quite sure of and let her know next day. But you got her letter—look here, 'Dear Miss S-t-e-r-l-i-n-g.'"

"Yes. I noticed that. But I thought it a mistake. I didn't know there were any Sterlings in Port Lawrence."

"She was the only one. A lonely old soul. Lived by herself with only a little home girl. She died two months after she was here—died in her sleep. My mistake couldn't have made any difference to her. But you! I can't forgive myself for inflicting a year's misery on you. It's time I retired, all right, when I do things like that—even if my son was supposed to be fatally injured. Can you ever forgive me?"

A year of misery! Valancy smiled a tortured smile as she thought of all the happiness Dr. Trent's mistake had bought her. But she was paying for it now—oh, she was paying. If to feel was to live she was living with a vengeance.

She let Dr. Trent examine her and answered all his questions. When he told her she was fit as a fiddle and would probably live to be a hundred, she got up and went away silently. She knew that there were a great many horrible things outside waiting to be thought over. Dr. Trent thought she was odd. Anybody would have thought, from her hopeless eyes and woebegone face, that he had given her a sentence of death instead of life. Snaith? Snaith? Who the devil had she married? He had never heard of Snaiths in Deerwood. And she had been such a sallow, faded, little old maid. Gad, but marriage had made a difference in her, anyhow, whoever Snaith was. Snaith? Dr. Trent remembered. That rapscallion "up back!" Had Valancy Stirling married him? And her clan had let her! Well, probably that solved the mystery. She had married in haste and repented at leisure, and that was why she wasn't overjoyed at learning she was a good insurance prospect, after all. Married! To God knew whom! Or what! Jail-bird? Defaulter? Fugitive from justice? It must be pretty bad if she had looked to death as a release, poor girl. But why were women such fools? Dr. Trent dismissed Valancy from his mind, though to the day of his death he was ashamed of putting those letters into the wrong envelopes.





CHAPTER XXXVIII

Valancy walked quickly through the back streets and through Lover's Lane. She did not want to meet any one she knew. She didn't want to meet even people she didn't know. She hated to be seen. Her mind was so confused, so torn, so messy. She felt that her appearance must be the same. She drew a sobbing breath of relief as she left the village behind and found herself on the "up back" road. There was little fear of meeting any one she knew here. The cars that fled by her with raucous shrieks were filled with strangers. One of them was packed with young people who whirled past her singing uproariously:

"My wife has the fever, O then,
My wife has the fever, O then,
My wife has the fever,
Oh, I hope it won't leave her,
For I want to be single again."

Valancy flinched as if one of them had leaned from the car and cut her across the face with a whip.

She had made a covenant with death and death had cheated her. Now life stood mocking her. She had trapped Barney. Trapped him into marrying her. And divorce was so hard to get in Ontario. So expensive. And Barney was poor.

With life, fear had come back into her heart. Sickening fear. Fear of what Barney would think. Would say. Fear of the future that must be lived without him. Fear of her insulted, repudiated clan.

She had had one draught from a divine cup and now it was dashed from her lips. With no kind, friendly death to rescue her. She must go on living and longing for it. Everything was spoiled, smirched, defaced. Even that year in the Blue Castle. Even her unashamed love for Barney. It had been beautiful because death waited. Now it was only sordid because death was gone. How could any one bear an unbearable thing?

She must go back and tell him. Make him believe she had not meant to trick him—she must make him believe that. She must say good-bye to her Blue Castle and return to the brick house on Elm Street. Back to everything she had thought left behind forever. The old bondage—the old fears. But that did not matter. All that mattered now was that Barney must somehow be made to believe she had not consciously tricked him.

When Valancy reached the pines by the lake she was brought out of her daze of pain by a startling sight. There, parked by the side of old, battered ragged Lady Jane, was another car. A wonderful car. A purple car. Not a dark, royal purple but a blatant, screaming purple. It shone like a mirror and its interior plainly indicated the car caste of Vere de Vere. On the driver's seat sat a haughty chauffeur in livery. And in the tonneau sat a man who opened the door and bounced out nimbly as Valancy came down the path to the landing-place. He stood under the pines waiting for her and Valancy took in every detail of him.

A stout, short, pudgy man, with a broad, rubicund, good-humoured face—a clean-shaven face, though an unparalysed little imp at the back of Valancy's paralysed mind suggested the thought, "Such a face should have a fringe of white whisker around it." Old-fashioned, steel-rimmed spectacles on prominent blue eyes. A pursey mouth; a little round, knobby nose. Where—where—where, groped Valancy, had she seen that face before? It seemed as familiar to her as her own.

The stranger wore a green hat and a light fawn overcoat over a suit of a loud check pattern. His tie was a brilliant green of lighter shade; on the plump hand he outstretched to intercept Valancy an enormous diamond winked at her. But he had a pleasant, fatherly smile, and in his hearty, unmodulated voice was a ring of something that attracted her.

"Can you tell me, Miss, if that house yonder belongs to a Mr. Redfern? And if so, how can I get to it?"

Redfern! A vision of bottles seemed to dance before Valancy's eyes—long bottles of bitters—round bottles of hair tonic—square bottles of liniment—short, corpulent little bottles of purple pills—and all of them bearing that very prosperous, beaming moon-face and steel-rimmed spectacles on the label.

Dr. Redfern!

"No," said Valancy faintly. "No—that house belongs to Mr. Snaith."

Dr. Redfern nodded.

"Yes, I understand Bernie's been calling himself Snaith. Well, it's his middle name—was his poor mother's. Bernard Snaith Redfern—that's him. And now, Miss, you can tell me how to get over to that island? Nobody seems to be home there. I've done some waving and yelling. Henry, there, wouldn't yell. He's a one-job man. But old Doc Redfern can yell with the best of them yet, and ain't above doing it. Raised nothing but a couple of crows. Guess Bernie's out for the day."

"He was away when I left this morning," said Valancy. "I suppose he hasn't come home yet."

She spoke flatly and tonelessly. This last shock had temporarily bereft her of whatever little power of reasoning had been left her by Dr. Trent's revelation. In the back of her mind the aforesaid little imp was jeeringly repeating a silly old proverb, "It never rains but it pours." But she was not trying to think. What was the use?

Dr. Redfern was gazing at her in perplexity.

"When you left this morning? Do you live—over there?"

He waved his diamond at the Blue Castle.

"Of course," said Valancy stupidly. "I'm his wife."

Dr. Redfern took out a yellow silk handkerchief, removed his hat and mopped his brow. He was very bald, and Valancy's imp whispered, "Why be bald? Why lose your manly beauty? Try Redfern's Hair Vigor. It keeps you young."

"Excuse me," said Dr. Redfern. "This is a bit of a shock."

"Shocks seem to be in the air this morning." The imp said this out loud before Valancy could prevent it.

"I didn't know Bernie was—married. I didn't think he would have got married without telling his old dad."

Were Dr. Redfern's eyes misty? Amid her own dull ache of misery and fear and dread, Valancy felt a pang of pity for him.

"Don't blame him," she said hurriedly. "It—it wasn't his fault. It—was all my doing."

"You didn't ask him to marry you, I suppose," twinkled Dr. Redfern. "He might have let me know. I'd have got acquainted with my daughter-in-law before this if he had. But I'm glad to meet you now, my dear—very glad. You look like a sensible young woman. I used to sorter fear Barney'd pick out some pretty bit of fluff just because she was good-looking. They were all after him, of course. Wanted his money? Eh? Didn't like the pills and the bitters but liked the dollars. Eh? Wanted to dip their pretty little fingers in old Doc's millions. Eh?"

"Millions!" said Valancy faintly. She wished she could sit down somewhere—she wished she could have a chance to think—she wished she and the Blue Castle could sink to the bottom of Mistawis and vanish from human sight forevermore.

"Millions," said Dr. Redfern complacently. "And Bernie chucks them for—that." Again he shook the diamond contemptuously at the Blue Castle. "Wouldn't you think he'd have more sense? And all on account of a white bit of a girl. He must have got over that feeling, anyhow, since he's married. You must persuade him to come back to civilisation. All nonsense wasting his life like this. Ain't you going to take me over to your house, my dear? I suppose you've some way of getting there."

"Of course," said Valancy stupidly. She led the way down to the little cove where the disappearing propeller boat was snuggled.

"Does your—your man want to come, too?"

"Who? Henry. Not he. Look at him sitting there disapproving. Disapproves of the whole expedition. The trail up from the road nearly gave him a conniption. Well, it was a devilish road to put a car on. Whose old bus is that up there?"

"Barney's."

"Good Lord! Does Bernie Redfern ride in a thing like that? It looks like the great-great-grand-mother of all the Fords."

"It isn't a Ford. It's a Grey Slosson," said Valancy spiritedly. For some occult reason, Dr. Redfern's good-humoured ridicule of dear old Lady Jane stung her to life. A life that was all pain but still life. Better than the horrible half-dead-and-half-aliveness of the past few minutes—or years. She waved Dr. Redfern curtly into the boat and took him over to the Blue Castle. The key was still in the old pine—the house still silent and deserted. Valancy took the doctor through the living-room to the western verandah. She must at least be out where there was air. It was still sunny, but in the southwest a great thundercloud, with white crests and gorges of purple shadow, was slowly rising over Mistawis. The doctor dropped with a gasp on a rustic chair and mopped his brow again.

"Warm, eh? Lord, what a view! Wonder if it would soften Henry if he could see it."

"Have you had dinner?" asked Valancy.

"Yes, my dear—had it before we left Port Lawrence. Didn't know what sort of wild hermit's hollow we were coming to, you see. Hadn't any idea I was going to find a nice little daughter-in-law here all ready to toss me up a meal. Cats, eh? Puss, puss! See that. Cats love me. Bernie was always fond of cats! It's about the only thing he took from me. He's his poor mother's boy."

Valancy had been thinking idly that Barney must resemble his mother. She had remained standing by the steps, but Dr. Redfern waved her to the swing seat.

"Sit down, dear. Never stand when you can sit. I want to get a good look at Barney's wife. Well, well, I like your face. No beauty—you don't mind my saying that—you've sense enough to know it, I reckon. Sit down."

Valancy sat down. To be obliged to sit still when mental agony urges us to stride up and down is the refinement of torture. Every nerve in her being was crying out to be alone—to be hidden. But she had to sit and listen to Dr. Redfern, who didn't mind talking at all.

"When do you think Bernie will be back?"

"I don't know—not before night probably."

"Where did he go?"

"I don't know that either. Likely to the woods—up back."

"So he doesn't tell you his comings and goings, either? Bernie was always a secretive young devil. Never understood him. Just like his poor mother. But I thought a lot of him. It hurt me when he disappeared as he did. Eleven years ago. I haven't seen my boy for eleven years."

"Eleven years." Valancy was surprised. "It's only six since he came here."

"Oh, he was in the Klondike before that—and all over the world. He used to drop me a line now and then—never give any clue to where he was but just a line to say he was all right. I s'pose he's told you all about it."

"No. I know nothing of his past life," said Valancy with sudden eagerness. She wanted to know—she must know now. It hadn't mattered before. Now she must know all. And she could never hear it from Barney. She might never even see him again. If she did, it would not be to talk of his past.

"What happened? Why did he leave his home? Tell me. Tell me."

"Well, it ain't much of a story. Just a young fool gone mad because of a quarrel with his girl. Only Bernie was a stubborn fool. Always stubborn. You never could make that boy do anything he didn't want to do. From the day he was born. Yet he was always a quiet, gentle little chap, too. Good as gold. His poor mother died when he was only two years old. I'd just begun to make money with my Hair Vigor. I'd dreamed the formula for it, you see. Some dream that. The cash rolled in. Bernie had everything he wanted. I sent him to the best schools—private schools. I meant to make a gentleman of him. Never had any chance myself. Meant he should have every chance. He went through McGill. Got honours and all that. I wanted him to go in for law. He hankered after journalism and stuff like that. Wanted me to buy a paper for him—or back him in publishing what he called a 'real, worthwhile, honest-to-goodness Canadian Magazine.' I s'pose I'd have done it—I always did what he wanted me to do. Wasn't he all I had to live for? I wanted him to be happy. And he never was happy. Can you believe it? Not that he said so. But I'd always a feeling that he wasn't happy. Everything he wanted—all the money he could spend—his own bank account—travel—seeing the world—but he wasn't happy. Not till he fell in love with Ethel Traverse. Then he was happy for a little while."

The cloud had reached the sun and a great, chill, purple shadow came swiftly over Mistawis. It touched the Blue Castle—rolled over it. Valancy shivered.

"Yes," she said, with painful eagerness, though every word was cutting her to the heart. "What—was—she—like?"

"Prettiest girl in Montreal," said Dr. Redfern. "Oh, she was a looker, all right. Eh? Gold hair—shiny as silk—great, big, soft, black eyes—skin like milk and roses. Don't wonder Bernie fell for her. And brains as well. She wasn't a bit of fluff. B. A. from McGill. A thoroughbred, too. One of the best families. But a bit lean in the purse. Eh! Bernie was mad about her. Happiest young fool you ever saw. Then—the bust-up."

"What happened?" Valancy had taken off her hat and was absently thrusting a pin in and out of it. Good Luck was purring beside her. Banjo was regarding Dr. Redfern with suspicion. Nip and Tuck were lazily cawing in the pines. Mistawis was beckoning. Everything was the same. Nothing was the same. It was a hundred years since yesterday. Yesterday, at this time, she and Barney had been eating a belated dinner here with laughter. Laughter? Valancy felt that she had done with laughter forever. And with tears, for that matter. She had no further use for either of them.

"Blest if I know, my dear. Some fool quarrel, I suppose. Bernie just lit out—disappeared. He wrote me from the Yukon. Said his engagement was broken and he wasn't coming back. And not to try to hunt him up because he was never coming back. I didn't. What was the use? I knew Bernie. I went on piling, up money because there wasn't anything else to do. But I was mighty lonely. All I lived for was them little notes now and then from Bernie—Klondike—England—South Africa—China—everywhere. I thought maybe he'd come back some day to his lonesome old dad. Then six years ago even the letters stopped. I didn't hear a word of or from him till last Christmas."

"Did he write?"

"No. But he drew a check for fifteen thousand dollars on his bank account. The bank manager is a friend of mine—one of my biggest shareholders. He'd always promised me he'd let me know if Bernie drew any checks. Bernie had fifty thousand there. And he'd never touched a cent of it till last Christmas. The check was made out to Aynsley's, Toronto——"

"Aynsley's?" Valancy heard herself saying Aynsley's! She had a box on her dressing-table with the Aynsley trademark.

"Yes. The big jewellery house there. After I'd thought it over a while, I got brisk. I wanted to locate Bernie. Had a special reason for it. It was time he gave up his fool hoboing and come to his senses. Drawing that fifteen told me there was something in the wind. The manager communicated with the Aynsleys—his wife was an Aynsley—and found out that Bernard Redfern had bought a pearl necklace there. His address was given as Box 444, Port Lawrence, Muskoka, Ont. First I thought I'd write. Then I thought I'd wait till the open season for cars and come down myself. Ain't no hand at writing. I've motored from Montreal. Got to Port Lawrence yesterday. Enquired at the post-office. Told me they knew nothing of any Bernard Snaith Redfern, but there was a Barney Snaith had a P. O. box there. Lived on an island out here, they said. So here I am. And where's Barney?"

Valancy was fingering her necklace. She was wearing fifteen thousand dollars around her neck. And she had worried lest Barney had paid fifteen dollars for it and couldn't afford it. Suddenly she laughed in Dr. Redfern's face.

"Excuse me. It's so—amusing," said poor Valancy.

"Isn't it?" said Dr. Redfern, seeing a joke—but not exactly hers. "Now, you seem like a sensible young woman, and I dare say you've lots of influence over Bernie. Can't you get him to come back to civilisation and live like other people? I've a house up there. Big as a castle. Furnished like a palace. I want company in it—Bernie's wife—Bernie's children."

"Did Ethel Traverse ever marry?" queried Valancy irrelevantly.

"Bless you, yes. Two years after Bernie levanted. But she's a widow now. Pretty as ever. To be frank, that was my special reason for wanting to find Bernie. I thought they'd make it up, maybe. But, of course, that's all off now. Doesn't matter. Bernie's choice of a wife is good enough for me. It's my boy I want. Think he'll soon be back?"

"I don't know. But I don't think he'll come before night. Quite late, perhaps. And perhaps not till tomorrow. But I can put you up comfortably. He'll certainly be back tomorrow."

Dr. Redfern shook his head.

"Too damp. I'll take no chances with rheumatism."

"Why suffer that ceaseless anguish? Why not try Redfern's Liniment?" quoted the imp in the back of Valancy's mind.

"I must get back to Port Lawrence before rain starts. Henry goes quite mad when he gets mud on the car. But I'll come back tomorrow. Meanwhile you talk Bernie into reason."

He shook her hand and patted her kindly on the shoulder. He looked as if he would have kissed her, with a little encouragement, but Valancy did not give it. Not that she would have minded. He was rather dreadful and loud—and—and—dreadful. But there was something about him she liked. She thought dully that she might have liked being his daughter-in-law if he had not been a millionaire. A score of times over. And Barney was his son—and heir.

She took him over in the motor boat and watched the lordly purple car roll away through the woods with Henry at the wheel looking things not lawful to be uttered. Then she went back to the Blue Castle. What she had to do must be done quickly. Barney might return at any moment. And it was certainly going to rain. She was thankful she no longer felt very bad. When you are bludgeoned on the head repeatedly, you naturally and mercifully become more or less insensible and stupid.

She stood briefly like a faded flower bitten by frost, by the hearth, looking down on the white ashes of the last fire that had blazed in the Blue Castle.

"At any rate," she thought wearily, "Barney isn't poor. He will be able to afford a divorce. Quite nicely."





CHAPTER XXXIX

She must write a note. The imp in the back of her mind laughed. In every story she had ever read when a runaway wife decamped from home she left a note, generally on the pin-cushion. It was not a very original idea. But one had to leave something intelligible. What was there to do but write a note? She looked vaguely about her for something to write with. Ink? There was none. Valancy had never written anything since she had come to the Blue Castle, save memoranda of household necessaries for Barney. A pencil sufficed for them, but now the pencil was not to be found. Valancy absently crossed to the door of Bluebeard's Chamber and tried it. She vaguely expected to find it locked, but it opened unresistingly. She had never tried it before, and did not know whether Barney habitually kept it locked or not. If he did, he must have been badly upset to leave it unlocked. She did not realise that she was doing something he had told her not to do. She was only looking for something to write with. All her faculties were concentrated on deciding just what she would say and how she would say it. There was not the slightest curiosity in her as she went into the lean-to.

There were no beautiful women hanging by their hair on the walls. It seemed a very harmless apartment, with a commonplace little sheet-iron stove in the middle of it, its pipe sticking out through the roof. At one end was a table or counter crowded with odd-looking utensils. Used no doubt by Barney in his smelly operations. Chemical experiments, probably, she reflected dully. At the other end was a big writing desk and swivel-chair. The side walls were lined with books.

Valancy went blindly to the desk. There she stood motionless for a few minutes, looking down at something that lay on it. A bundle of galley-proofs. The page on top bore the title Wild Honey, and under the title were the words "by John Foster."

The opening sentence—"Pines are the trees of myth and legend. They strike their roots deep into the traditions of an older world, but wind and star love their lofty tops. What music when old Æolus draws his bow across the branches of the pines—" She had heard Barney say that one day when they walked under them.

So Barney was John Foster!

Valancy was not excited. She had absorbed all the shocks and sensations that she could compass for one day. This affected her neither one way nor the other. She only thought:

"So this explains it."

"It" was a small matter that had, somehow, stuck in her mind more persistently than its importance seemed to justify. Soon after Barney had brought her John Foster's latest book she had been in a Port Lawrence bookshop and heard a customer ask the proprietor for John Foster's new book. The proprietor had said curtly, "Not out yet. Won't be out till next week."

Valancy had opened her lips to say, "Oh, yes, it is out," but closed them again. After all, it was none of her business. She supposed the proprietor wanted to cover up his negligence in not getting the book in promptly. Now she knew. The book Barney had given her had been one of the author's complimentary copies, sent in advance.

Well! Valancy pushed the proofs indifferently aside and sat down in the swivel-chair. She took up Barney's pen—and a vile one it was—pulled a sheet of paper to her and began to write. She could not think of anything to say except bald facts.

"Dear Barney:—
I went to Dr. Trent this morning and found out he had sent me the wrong letter by mistake. There never was anything serious the matter with my heart and I am quite well now.

I did not mean to trick you. Please believe that. I could not bear it if you did not believe that. I am very sorry for the mistake. But surely you can get a divorce if I leave you. Is desertion a ground for divorce in Canada? Of course if there is anything I can do to help or hasten it I will do it gladly, if your lawyer will let me know.

I thank you for all your kindness to me. I shall never forget it. Think as kindly of me as you can, because I did not mean to trap you. Good-bye.
Yours gratefully,
VALANCY."

It was very cold and stiff, she knew. But to try to say anything else would be dangerous—like tearing away a dam. She didn't know what torrent of wild incoherences and passionate anguish might pour out. In a postscript she added:

"Your father was here today. He is coming back tomorrow. He told me everything. I think you should go back to him. He is very lonely for you."

She put the letter in an envelope, wrote "Barney" across it, and left it on the desk. On it she laid the string of pearls. If they had been the beads she believed them she would have kept them in memory of that wonderful year. But she could not keep the fifteen thousand dollar gift of a man who had married her out of pity and whom she was now leaving. It hurt her to give up her pretty bauble. That was an odd thing, she reflected. The fact that she was leaving Barney did not hurt her—yet. It lay at her heart like a cold, insensible thing. If it came to life—Valancy shuddered and went out——

She put on her hat and mechanically fed Good Luck and Banjo. She locked the door and carefully hid the key in the old pine. Then she crossed to the mainland in the disappearing propeller. She stood for a moment on the bank, looking at her Blue Castle. The rain had not yet come, but the sky was dark, and Mistawis grey and sullen. The little house under the pines looked very pathetic—a casket rifled of its jewels—a lamp with its flame blown out.

"I shall never again hear the wind crying over Mistawis at night," thought Valancy. This hurt her, too. She could have laughed to think that such a trifle could hurt her at such a time.





CHAPTER XL

Valancy paused a moment on the porch of the brick house in Elm Street. She felt that she ought to knock like a stranger. Her rosebush, she idly noticed, was loaded with buds. The rubber-plant stood beside the prim door. A momentary horror overcame her—a horror of the existence to which she was returning. Then she opened the door and walked in.

"I wonder if the Prodigal Son ever felt really at home again," she thought.

Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles were in the sitting-room. Uncle Benjamin was there, too. They looked blankly at Valancy, realising at once that something was wrong. This was not the saucy, impudent thing who had laughed at them in this very room last summer. This was a grey-faced woman with the eyes of a creature who had been stricken by a mortal blow.

Valancy looked indifferently around the room. She had changed so much—and it had changed so little. The same pictures hung on the walls. The little orphan who knelt at her never-finished prayer by the bed whereon reposed the black kitten that never grew up into a cat. The grey "steel engraving" of Quatre Bras, where the British regiment forever stood at bay. The crayon enlargement of the boyish father she had never known. There they all hung in the same places. The green cascade of "Wandering Jew" still tumbled out of the old granite saucepan on the window-stand. The same elaborate, never-used pitcher stood at the same angle on the sideboard shelf. The blue and gilt vases that had been among her mother's wedding-presents still primly adorned the mantelpiece, flanking the china clock of berosed and besprayed ware that never went. The chairs in exactly the same places. Her mother and Cousin Stickles, likewise unchanged, regarding her with stony unwelcome.

Valancy had to speak first.

"I've come home, Mother," she said tiredly.

"So I see." Mrs. Frederick's voice was very icy. She had resigned herself to Valancy's desertion. She had almost succeeded in forgetting there was a Valancy. She had rearranged and organised her systematic life without any reference to an ungrateful, rebellious child. She had taken her place again in a society which ignored the fact that she had ever had a daughter and pitied her, if it pitied her at all, only in discreet whispers and asides. The plain truth was that, by this time, Mrs. Frederick did not want Valancy to come back—did not want ever to see or hear of her again.

And now, of course, Valancy was here. With tragedy and disgrace and scandal trailing after her visibly. "So I see," said Mrs. Frederick. "May I ask why?"

"Because—I'm—not—going to die," said Valancy huskily.

"God bless my soul!" said Uncle Benjamin. "Who said you were going to die?"

"I suppose," said Cousin Stickles shrewishly—Cousin Stickles did not want Valancy back either—"I suppose you've found out he has another wife—as we've been sure all along."

"No. I only wish he had," said Valancy. She was not suffering particularly, but she was very tired. If only the explanations were all over and she were upstairs in her old, ugly room—alone. Just alone! The rattle of the beads on her mother's sleeves, as they swung on the arms of the reed chair, almost drove her crazy. Nothing else was worrying her; but all at once it seemed that she simply could not endure that thin, insistent rattle.

"My home, as I told you, is always open to you," said Mrs. Frederick stonily, "but I can never forgive you."

Valancy gave a mirthless laugh.

"I'd care very little for that if I could only forgive myself," she said.

"Come, come," said Uncle Benjamin testily. But rather enjoying himself. He felt he had Valancy under his thumb again. "We've had enough of mystery. What has happened? Why have you left that fellow? No doubt there's reason enough—but what particular reason is it?"

Valancy began to speak mechanically. She told her tale bluntly and barely.

"A year ago Dr. Trent told me I had angina pectoris and could not live long. I wanted to have some—life—before I died. That's why I went away. Why I married Barney. And now I've found it is all a mistake. There is nothing wrong with my heart. I've got to live—and Barney only married me out of pity. So I have to leave him—free."

"God bless me!" said Uncle Benjamin. Cousin Stickles began to cry.

"Valancy, if you'd only had confidence in your own mother——"

"Yes, yes, I know," said Valancy impatiently. "What's the use of going into that now? I can't undo this year. God knows I wish I could. I've tricked Barney into marrying me—and he's really Bernard Redfern. Dr. Redfern's son, of Montreal. And his father wants him to go back to him."

Uncle Benjamin made a queer sound. Cousin Stickles took her black-bordered handkerchief away from her eyes and stared at Valancy. A queer gleam suddenly shot into Mrs. Frederick's stone-grey orbs.

"Dr. Redfern—not the Purple Pill man?" she said.

Valancy nodded. "He's John Foster, too—the writer of those nature books."

"But—but—" Mrs. Frederick was visibly agitated, though not over the thought that she was the mother-in-law of John Foster—"Dr. Redfern is a millionaire!"

Uncle Benjamin shut his mouth with a snap.

"Ten times over," he said.

Valancy nodded.

"Yes. Barney left home years ago—because of—of some trouble—some—disappointment. Now he will likely go back. So you see—I had to come home. He doesn't love me. I can't hold him to a bond he was tricked into."

Uncle Benjamin looked incredibly sly.

"Did he say so? Does he want to get rid of you?"

"No. I haven't seen him since I found out. But I tell you—he only married me out of pity—because I asked him to—because he thought it would only be for a little while."

Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles both tried to speak, but Uncle Benjamin waved a hand at them and frowned portentously.

"Let me handle this," wave and frown seemed to say. To Valancy:

"Well, well, dear, we'll talk it all over later. You see, we don't quite understand everything yet. As Cousin Stickles says, you should have confided in us before. Later on—I dare say we can find a way out of this."

"You think Barney can easily get a divorce, don't you?" said Valancy eagerly.

Uncle Benjamin silenced with another wave the exclamation of horror he knew was trembling on Mrs. Frederick's lips.

"Trust to me, Valancy. Everything will arrange itself. Tell me this, Dossie. Have you been happy up back? Was Sr.—Mr. Redfern good to you?"

"I have been very happy and Barney was very good to me," said Valancy, as if reciting a lesson. She remembered when she studied grammar at school she had disliked the past and perfect tenses. They had always seemed so pathetic. "I have been"—it was all over and done with.

"Then don't worry, little girl." How amazingly paternal Uncle Benjamin was! "Your family will stand behind you. We'll see what can be done."

"Thank you," said Valancy dully. Really, it was quite decent of Uncle Benjamin. "Can I go and lie down a little while? I'm—I'm—tired."

"Of course you're tired." Uncle Benjamin patted her hand gently—very gently. "All worn out and nervous. Go and lie down, by all means. You'll see things in quite a different light after you've had a good sleep."

He held the door open. As she went through he whispered, "What is the best way to keep a man's love?"

Valancy smiled wanly. But she had come back to the old life—the old shackles. "What?" she asked as meekly as of yore.

"Not to return it," said Uncle Benjamin with a chuckle. He shut the door and rubbed his hands. Nodded and smiled mysteriously round the room.

"Poor little Doss!" he said pathetically.

"Do you really suppose that—Snaith—can actually be Dr. Redfern's son?" gasped Mrs. Frederick.

"I see no reason for doubting it. She says Dr. Redfern has been there; Why, the man is rich as wedding-cake. Amelia, I've always believed there was more in Doss than most people thought. You kept her down too much—repressed her. She never had a chance to show what was in her. And now she's landed a millionaire for a husband."

"But—" hesitated Mrs. Frederick, "he—he—they told terrible tales about him."

"All gossip and invention—all gossip and invention. It's always been a mystery to me why people should be so ready to invent and circulate slanders about other people they know absolutely nothing about. I can't understand why you paid so much attention to gossip and surmise. Just because he didn't choose to mix up with everybody, people resented it. I was surprised to find what a decent fellow he seemed to be that time he came into my store with Valancy. I discounted all the yarns then and there."

"But he was seen dead drunk in Port Lawrence once," said Cousin Stickles. Doubtfully, yet as one very willing to be convinced to the contrary.

"Who saw him?" demanded Uncle Benjamin truculently. "Who saw him? Old Jemmy Strang said he saw him. I wouldn't take old Jemmy Strang's word on oath. He's too drunk himself half the time to see straight. He said he saw him lying drunk on a bench in the Park. Pshaw! Redfern's been asleep there. Don't worry over that."

"But his clothes—and that awful old car—" said Mrs. Frederick uncertainly.

"Eccentricities of genius," declared Uncle Benjamin. "You heard Doss say he was John Foster. I'm not up in literature myself, but I heard a lecturer from Toronto say that John Foster's books had put Canada on the literary map of the world."

"I—suppose—we must forgive her," yielded Mrs. Frederick.

"Forgive her!" Uncle Benjamin snorted. Really, Amelia was an incredibly stupid woman. No wonder poor Doss had gone sick and tired of living with her. "Well, yes, I think you'd better forgive her! The question is—will Snaith forgive us!"

"What if she persists in leaving him? You've no idea how stubborn she can be," said Mrs. Frederick.

"Leave it all to me, Amelia. Leave it all to me. You women have muddled it enough. This whole affair has been bungled from start to finish. If you had put yourself to a little trouble years ago, Amelia, she would not have bolted over the traces as she did. Just let her alone—don't worry her with advice or questions till she's ready to talk. She's evidently run away in a panic because she's afraid he'd be angry with her for fooling him. Most extraordinary thing of Trent to tell her such a yarn! That's what comes of going to strange doctors. Well, well, we mustn't blame her too harshly, poor child. Redfern will come after her. If he doesn't, I'll hunt him up and talk to him as man to man. He may be a millionaire, but Valancy is a Stirling. He can't repudiate her just because she was mistaken about her heart disease. Not likely he'll want to. Doss is a little overstrung. Bless me, I must get in the habit of calling her Valancy. She isn't a baby any longer. Now, remember, Amelia. Be very kind and sympathetic."

It was something of a large order to expect Mrs. Frederick to be kind and sympathetic. But she did her best. When supper was ready she went up and asked Valancy if she wouldn't like a cup of tea. Valancy, lying on her bed, declined. She just wanted to be left alone for a while. Mrs. Frederick left her alone. She did not even remind Valancy that her plight was the outcome of her own lack of daughterly respect and obedience. One could not—exactly—say things like that to the daughter-in-law of a millionaire.





CHAPTER XLI

Valancy looked dully about her old room. It, too, was so exactly the same that it seemed almost impossible to believe in the changes that had come to her since she had last slept in it. It seemed—somehow—indecent that it should be so much the same. There was Queen Louise everlastingly coming down the stairway, and nobody had let the forlorn puppy in out of the rain. Here was the purple paper blind and the greenish mirror. Outside, the old carriage-shop with its blatant advertisements. Beyond it, the station with the same derelicts and flirtatious flappers.

Here the old life waited for her, like some grim ogre that bided his time and licked his chops. A monstrous horror of it suddenly possessed her. When night fell and she had undressed and got into bed, the merciful numbness passed away and she lay in anguish and thought of her island under the stars. The camp-fires—all their little household jokes and phrases and catch words—their furry beautiful cats—the lights agleam on the fairy islands—canoes skimming over Mistawis in the magic of morning—white birches shining among the dark spruces like beautiful women's bodies—winter snows and rose-red sunset fires—lakes drunken with moonshine—all the delights of her lost paradise. She would not let herself think of Barney. Only of these lesser things. She could not endure to think of Barney.

Then she thought of him inescapably. She ached for him. She wanted his arms around her—his face against hers—his whispers in her ear. She recalled all his friendly looks and quips and jests—his little compliments—his caresses. She counted them all over as a woman might count her jewels—not one did she miss from the first day they had met. These memories were all she could have now. She shut her eyes and prayed.

"Let me remember every one, God! Let me never forget one of them!"

Yet it would be better to forget. This agony of longing and loneliness would not be so terrible if one could forget. And Ethel Traverse. That shimmering witch woman with her white skin and black eyes and shining hair. The woman Barney had loved. The woman whom he still loved. Hadn't he told her he never changed his mind? Who was waiting for him in Montreal. Who was the right wife for a rich and famous man. Barney would marry her, of course, when he got his divorce. How Valancy hated her! And envied her! Barney had said, "I love you," to her. Valancy had wondered what tone Barney would say "I love you" in—how his dark-blue eyes would look when he said it. Ethel Traverse knew. Valancy hated her for the knowledge—hated and envied her.

"She can never have those hours in the Blue Castle. They are mine," thought Valancy savagely. Ethel would never make strawberry jam or dance to old Abel's fiddle or fry bacon for Barney over a camp-fire. She would never come to the little Mistawis shack at all.

What was Barney doing—thinking—feeling now? Had he come home and found her letter? Was he still angry with her? Or a little pitiful. Was he lying on their bed looking out on stormy Mistawis and listening to the rain streaming down on the roof? Or was he still wandering in the wilderness, raging at the predicament in which he found himself? Hating her? Pain took her and wrung her like some great pitiless giant. She got up and walked the floor. Would morning never come to end this hideous night? And yet what could morning bring her? The old life without the old stagnation that was at least bearable. The old life with the new memories, the new longings, the new anguish.

"Oh, why can't I die?" moaned Valancy.





CHAPTER XLII

It was not until early afternoon the next day that a dreadful old car clanked up Elm Street and stopped in front of the brick house. A hatless man sprang from it and rushed up the steps. The bell was rung as it had never been rung before—vehemently, intensely. The ringer was demanding entrance, not asking it. Uncle Benjamin chuckled as he hurried to the door. Uncle Benjamin had "just dropped in" to enquire how dear Doss—Valancy was. Dear Doss—Valancy, he had been informed, was just the same. She had come down for breakfast—which she didn't eat—gone back to her room, come down for dinner—which she didn't eat—gone back to her room. That was all. She had not talked. And she had been let, kindly, considerately, alone.

"Very good. Redfern will be here today," said Uncle Benjamin. And now Uncle Benjamin's reputation as a prophet was made. Redfern was here—unmistakably so.

"Is my wife here?" he demanded of Uncle Benjamin without preface.

Uncle Benjamin smiled expressively.

"Mr. Redfern, I believe? Very glad to meet you, sir. Yes, that naughty little girl of yours is here. We have been——"

"I must see her," Barney cut Uncle Benjamin ruthlessly short.

"Certainly, Mr. Redfern. Just step in here. Valancy will be down in a minute."

He ushered Barney into the parlour and betook himself to the sitting-room and Mrs. Frederick.

"Go up and tell Valancy to come down. Her husband is here."

But so dubious was Uncle Benjamin as to whether Valancy could really come down in a minute—or at all—that he followed Mrs. Frederick on tiptoe up the stairs and listened in the hall.

"Valancy dear," said Mrs. Frederick tenderly, "your husband is in the parlour, asking for you."

"Oh, Mother." Valancy got up from the window and wrung her hands. "I cannot see him—I cannot! Tell him to go away—ask him to go away. I can't see him!"

"Tell her," hissed Uncle Benjamin through the keyhole, "that Redfern says he won't go away until he has seen her."

Redfern had not said anything of the kind, but Uncle Benjamin thought he was that sort of a fellow. Valancy knew he was. She understood that she might as well go down first as last.

She did not even look at Uncle Benjamin as she passed him on the landing. Uncle Benjamin did not mind. Rubbing his hands and chuckling, he retreated to the kitchen, where he genially demanded of Cousin Stickles:

"Why are good husbands like bread?"

Cousin Stickles asked why.

"Because women need them," beamed Uncle Benjamin.

Valancy was looking anything but beautiful when she entered the parlour. Her white night had played fearful havoc with her face. She wore an ugly old brown-and-blue gingham, having left all her pretty dresses in the Blue Castle. But Barney dashed across the room and caught her in his arms.

"Valancy, darling—oh, you darling little idiot! Whatever possessed you to run away like that? When I came home last night and found your letter I went quite mad. It was twelve o'clock—I knew it was too late to come here then. I walked the floor all night. Then this morning Dad came—I couldn't get away till now. Valancy, whatever got into you? Divorce, forsooth! Don't you know——"

"I know you only married me out of pity," said Valancy, brushing him away feebly. "I know you don't love me—I know——"

"You've been lying awake at three o'clock too long," said Barney, shaking her. "That's all that's the matter with you. Love you! Oh, don't I love you! My girl, when I saw that train coming down on you I knew whether I loved you or not!"

"Oh, I was afraid you would try to make me think you cared," cried Valancy passionately. "Don't—don't! I know. I know all about Ethel Traverse—your father told me everything. Oh, Barney, don't torture me! I can never go back to you!"

Barney released her and looked at her for a moment. Something in her pallid, resolute face spoke more convincingly than words of her determination.

"Valancy," he said quietly, "Father couldn't have told you everything because he didn't know it. Will you let me tell you—everything?"

"Yes," said Valancy wearily. Oh, how dear he was! How she longed to throw herself into his arms! As he put her gently down in a chair, she could have kissed the slender, brown hands that touched her arms. She could not look up as he stood before her. She dared not meet his eyes. For his sake, she must be brave. She knew him—kind, unselfish. Of course he would pretend he did not want his freedom—she might have known he would pretend that, once the first shock of realisation was over. He was so sorry for her—he understood her terrible position. When had he ever failed to understand? But she would never accept his sacrifice. Never!

"You've seen Dad and you know I'm Bernard Redfern. And I suppose you've guessed that I'm John Foster—since you went into Bluebeard's Chamber."

"Yes. But I didn't go in out of curiosity. I forgot you had told me not to go in—I forgot——"

"Never mind. I'm not going to kill you and hang you up on the wall, so there's no need to call for Sister Anne. I'm only going to tell you my story from the beginning. I came back last night intending to do it. Yes, I'm 'old Doc. Redfern's son'—of Purple Pills and Bitters fame. Oh, don't I know it? Wasn't it rubbed into me for years?"

Barney laughed bitterly and strode up and down the room a few times. Uncle Benjamin, tiptoeing through the hall, heard the laugh and frowned. Surely Doss wasn't going to be a stubborn little fool. Barney threw himself into a chair before Valancy.

"Yes. As long as I can remember I've been a millionaire's son. But when I was born Dad wasn't a millionaire. He wasn't even a doctor—isn't yet. He was a veterinary and a failure at it. He and Mother lived in a little village up in Quebec and were abominably poor. I don't remember Mother. Haven't even a picture of her. She died when I was two years old. She was fifteen years younger than Father—a little school teacher. When she died Dad moved into Montreal and formed a company to sell his hair tonic. He'd dreamed the prescription one night, it seems. Well, it caught on. Money began to flow in. Dad invented—or dreamed—the other things, too—Pills, Bitters, Liniment and so on. He was a millionaire by the time I was ten, with a house so big a small chap like myself always felt lost in it. I had every toy a boy could wish for—and I was the loneliest little devil in the world. I remember only one happy day in my childhood, Valancy. Only one. Even you were better off than that. Dad had gone out to see an old friend in the country and took me along. I was turned loose in the barnyard and I spent the whole day hammering nails in a block of wood. I had a glorious day. When I had to go back to my roomful of playthings in the big house in Montreal I cried. But I didn't tell Dad why. I never told him anything. It's always been a hard thing for me to tell things, Valancy—anything that went deep. And most things went deep with me. I was a sensitive child and I was even more sensitive as a boy. No one ever knew what I suffered. Dad never dreamed of it.

"When he sent me to a private school—I was only eleven—the boys ducked me in the swimming-tank until I stood on a table and read aloud all the advertisements of Father's patent abominations. I did it—then"—Barney clinched his fists—"I was frightened and half drowned and all my world was against me. But when I went to college and the sophs tried the same stunt I didn't do it." Barney smiled grimly. "They couldn't make me do it. But they could—and did—make my life miserable. I never heard the last of the Pills and the Bitters and the Hair Tonic. 'After using' was my nickname—you see I'd always such a thick thatch. My four college years were a nightmare. You know—or you don't know—what merciless beasts boys can be when they get a victim like me. I had few friends—there was always some barrier between me and the kind of people I cared for. And the other kind—who would have been very willing to be intimate with rich old Doc. Redfern's son—I didn't care for. But I had one friend—or thought I had. A clever, bookish chap—a bit of a writer. That was a bond between us—I had some secret aspirations along that line. He was older than I was—I looked up to him and worshipped him. For a year I was happier than I'd ever been. Then—a burlesque sketch came out in the college magazine—a mordant thing, ridiculing Dad's remedies. The names were changed, of course, but everybody knew what and who was meant. Oh, it was clever—damnably so—and witty. McGill rocked with laughter over it. I found out he had written it."

"Oh, were you sure?" Valancy's dull eyes flamed with indignation.

"Yes. He admitted it when I asked him. Said a good idea was worth more to him than a friend, any time. And he added a gratuitous thrust. 'You know, Redfern, there are some things money won't buy. For instance—it won't buy you a grandfather.' Well, it was a nasty slam. I was young enough to feel cut up. And it destroyed a lot of my ideals and illusions, which was the worst thing about it. I was a young misanthrope after that. Didn't want to be friends with any one. And then—the year after I left college—I met Ethel Traverse."

Valancy shivered. Barney, his hands stuck in his pockets, was regarding the floor moodily and didn't notice it.

"Dad told you about her, I suppose. She was very beautiful. And I loved her. Oh, yes, I loved her. I won't deny it or belittle it now. It was a lonely, romantic boy's first passionate love, and it was very real. And I thought she loved me. I was fool enough to think that. I was wildly happy when she promised to marry me. For a few months. Then—I found out she didn't. I was an involuntary eavesdropper on a certain occasion for a moment. That moment was enough. The proverbial fate of the eavesdropper overtook me. A girl friend of hers was asking her how she could stomach Doc. Redfern's son and the patent-medicine background.

"'His money will gild the Pills and sweeten the Bitters,' said Ethel, with a laugh. 'Mother told me to catch him if I could. We're on the rocks. But pah! I smell turpentine whenever he comes near me.'"

"Oh, Barney!" cried Valancy, wrung with pity for him. She had forgotten all about herself and was filled with compassion for Barney and rage against Ethel Traverse. How dared she?

"Well,"—Barney got up and began pacing round the room—"that finished me. Completely. I left civilisation and those accursed dopes behind me and went to the Yukon. For five years I knocked about the world—in all sorts of outlandish places. I earned enough to live on—I wouldn't touch a cent of Dad's money. Then one day I woke up to the fact that I no longer cared a hang about Ethel, one way or another. She was somebody I'd known in another world—that was all. But I had no hankering to go back to the old life. None of that for me. I was free and I meant to keep so. I came to Mistawis—saw Tom MacMurray's island. My first book had been published the year before, and made a hit—I had a bit of money from my royalties. I bought my island. But I kept away from people. I had no faith in anybody. I didn't believe there was such a thing as real friendship or true love in the world—not for me, anyhow—the son of Purple Pills. I used to revel in all the wild yarns they told of me. In fact, I'm afraid I suggested a few of them myself. By mysterious remarks which people interpreted in the light of their own prepossessions.

"Then—you came. I had to believe you loved me—really loved me—not my father's millions. There was no other reason why you should want to marry a penniless devil with my supposed record. And I was sorry for you. Oh, yes, I don't deny I married you because I was sorry for you. And then—I found you the best and jolliest and dearest little pal and chum a fellow ever had. Witty—loyal—sweet. You made me believe again in the reality of friendship and love. The world seemed good again just because you were in it, honey. I'd have been willing to go on forever just as we were. I knew that, the night I came home and saw my homelight shining out from the island for the first time. And knew you were there waiting for me. After being homeless all my life it was beautiful to have a home. To come home hungry at night and know there was a good supper and a cheery fire—and you.

"But I didn't realise what you actually meant to me till that moment at the switch. Then it came like a lightning flash. I knew I couldn't live without you—that if I couldn't pull you loose in time I'd have to die with you. I admit it bowled me over—knocked me silly. I couldn't get my bearings for a while. That's why I acted like a mule. But the thought that drove me to the tall timber was the awful one that you were going to die. I'd always hated the thought of it—but I supposed there wasn't any chance for you, so I put it out of my mind. Now I had to face it—you were under sentence of death and I couldn't live without you. When I came home last night I had made up my mind that I'd take you to all the specialists in the world—that something surely could be done for you. I felt sure you couldn't be as bad as Dr. Trent thought, when those moments on the track hadn't even hurt you. And I found your note—and went mad with happiness—and a little terror for fear you didn't care much for me, after all, and had gone away to get rid of me. But now, it's all right, isn't it, darling?"

Was she, Valancy being called "darling"?

"I can't believe you care for me," she said helplessly. "I know you can't. What's the use, Barney? Of course, you're sorry for me—of course you want to do the best you can to straighten out the mess. But it can't be straightened out that way. You couldn't love me—me." She stood up and pointed tragically to the mirror over the mantel. Certainly, not even Allan Tierney could have seen beauty in the woeful, haggard little face reflected there.

Barney didn't look at the mirror. He looked at Valancy as if he would like to snatch her—or beat her.

"Love you! Girl, you're in the very core of my heart. I hold you there like a jewel. Didn't I promise you I'd never tell you a lie? Love you! I love you with all there is of me to love. Heart, soul, brain. Every fibre of body and spirit thrilling to the sweetness of you. There's nobody in the world for me but you, Valancy."

"You're—a good actor, Barney," said Valancy, with a wan little smile.

Barney looked at her.

"So you don't believe me—yet?"

"I—can t."

"Oh—damn!" said Barney violently.

Valancy looked up startled. She had never seen this Barney. Scowling! Eyes black with anger. Sneering lips. Dead-white face.

"You don't want to believe it," said Barney in the silk-smooth voice of ultimate rage. "You're tired of me. You want to get out of it—free from me. You're ashamed of the Pills and the Liniment, just as she was. Your Stirling pride can't stomach them. It was all right as long as you thought you hadn't long to live. A good lark—you could put up with me. But a lifetime with old Doc Redfern's son is a different thing. Oh, I understand—perfectly. I've been very dense—but I understand, at last."

Valancy stood up. She stared into his furious face. Then—she suddenly laughed.

"You darling!" she said. "You do mean it! You do really love me! You wouldn't be so enraged if you didn't."

Barney stared at her for a moment. Then he caught her in his arms with the little low laugh of the triumphant lover.

Uncle Benjamin, who had been frozen with horror at the keyhole, suddenly thawed out and tiptoed back to Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles.

"Everything is all right," he announced jubilantly.

Dear little Doss! He would send for his lawyer right away and alter his will again. Doss should be his sole heiress. To her that had should certainly be given.

Mrs. Frederick, returning to her comfortable belief in an overruling Providence, got out the family Bible and made an entry under "Marriages."





CHAPTER XLIII

"But, Barney," protested Valancy after a few minutes, "your father—somehow—gave me to understand that you still loved her."

"He would. Dad holds the championship for making blunders. If there's a thing that's better left unsaid you can trust him to say it. But he isn't a bad old soul, Valancy. You'll like him."

"I do, now."

"And his money isn't tainted money. He made it honestly. His medicines are quite harmless. Even his Purple Pills do people whole heaps of good when they believe in them."

"But—I'm not fit for your life," sighed Valancy. "I'm not—clever—or well-educated—or——"

"My life is in Mistawis—and all the wild places of the world. I'm not going to ask you to live the life of a society woman. Of course, we must spend a bit of the time with Dad—he's lonely and old——"

"But not in that big house of his," pleaded Valancy. "I can't live in a palace."

"Can't come down to that after your Blue Castle," grinned Barney. "Don't worry, sweet. I couldn't live in that house myself. It has a white marble stairway with gilt bannisters and looks like a furniture shop with the labels off. Likewise it's the pride of Dad's heart. We'll get a little house somewhere outside of Montreal—in the real country—near enough to see Dad often. I think we'll build one for ourselves. A house you build for yourself is so much nicer than a hand-me-down. But we'll spend our summers in Mistawis. And our autumns travelling. I want you to see the Alhambra—it's the nearest thing to the Blue Castle of your dreams I can think of. And there's an old-world garden in Italy where I want to show you the moon rising over Rome through the dark cypress-trees."

"Will that be any lovelier than the moon rising over Mistawis?"

"Not lovelier. But a different kind of loveliness. There are so many kinds of loveliness. Valancy, before this year you've spent all your life in ugliness. You know nothing of the beauty of the world. We'll climb mountains—hunt for treasures in the bazaars of Samarcand—search out the magic of east and west—run hand in hand to the rim of the world. I want to show you it all—see it again through your eyes. Girl, there are a million things I want to show you—do with you—say to you. It will take a lifetime. And we must see about that picture by Tierney, after all."

"Will you promise me one thing?" asked Valancy solemnly.

"Anything," said Barney recklessly.

"Only one thing. You are never, under any circumstances or under any provocation, to cast it up to me that I asked you to marry me."





CHAPTER XLIV

Extract from letter written by Miss Olive Stirling to Mr. Cecil Bruce:

"It's really disgusting that Doss' crazy adventures should have turned out like this. It makes one feel that there is no use in behaving properly.

"I'm sure her mind was unbalanced when she left home. What she said about a dust-pile showed that. Of course I don't think there was ever a thing the matter with her heart. Or perhaps Snaith or Redfern or whatever his name really is fed Purple Pills to her, back in that Mistawis hut and cured her. It would make quite a testimonial for the family ads, wouldn't it?

"He's such an insignificent-looking creature. I mentioned this to Doss but all she said was, 'I don't like collar ad men.'

"Well, he's certainly no collar ad man. Though I must say there is something rather distinguished about him, now that he has cut his hair and put on decent clothes. I really think, Cecil, you should exercise more. It doesn't do to get too fleshy.

"He also claims, I believe, to be John Foster. We can believe that or not, as we like, I suppose.

"Old Doc Redfern has given them two millions for a wedding-present. Evidently the Purple Pills bring in the bacon. They're going to spend the fall in Italy and the winter in Egypt and motor through Normandy in apple-blossom time. Not in that dreadful old Lizzie, though. Redfern has got a wonderful new car.

"Well, I think I'll run away, too, and disgrace myself. It seems to pay.

"Uncle Ben is a scream. Likewise Uncle James. The fuss they all make over Doss now is absolutely sickening. To hear Aunt Amelia talking of 'my son-in-law, Bernard Redfern' and 'my daughter, Mrs. Bernard Redfern.' Mother and Father are as bad as the rest. And they can't see that Valancy is just laughing at them all in her sleeve."





CHAPTER XLV

Valancy and Barney turned under the mainland pines in the cool dusk of the September night for a farewell look at the Blue Castle. Mistawis was drowned in sunset lilac light, incredibly delicate and elusive. Nip and Tuck were cawing lazily in the old pines. Good Luck and Banjo were mewed and mewing in separate baskets in Barney's new, dark-green car en route to Cousin Georgiana's. Cousin Georgiana was going to take care of them until Barney and Valancy came back. Aunt Wellington and Cousin Sarah and Aunt Alberta had also entreated the privilege of looking after them, but to Cousin Georgiana was it given. Valancy was in tears.

"Don't cry, Moonlight. We'll be back next summer. And now we're off for a real honeymoon."

Valancy smiled through her tears. She was so happy that her happiness terrified her. But, despite the delights before her—'the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome'—lure of the ageless Nile—glamour of the Riviera—mosque and palace and minaret—she knew perfectly well that no spot or place or home in the world could ever possess the sorcery of her Blue Castle.

THE END